For all the details on who knew what and when, the public yesterday got a rare look into the inner workings of the state Department of Education in a seven-hour legislative hearing on what went wrong with New Jersey’s ill-fated Race to the Top application.
Much of the hearing before the Assembly appropriations committee focused on the minutia of a crucial error that ultimately was the difference in the state failing to win $399 million.
But just as compelling was the discussion of how the department tackles an undertaking like Race to the Top, with the commissioner clearly calling the shots but with a variety of roles and levels of authority below him all playing a part.
There were assistant commissioners, division heads, a deputy, and in this case, a team of consultants working late hours in hotel rooms. But there wasn’t a full complement of assistant commissioners, as Schundler had yet to appoint two of them -- including one in charge of finances -- nor was there a chief of staff.
“Right now it appears disorganized from a bureaucratic standpoint, leaving us with a $400 million mistake,” said Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-Camden), chairman of the Assembly’s budget committee.
“Are we staffed appropriately in these tough economic times, and do we have staff in right places?” he said in an interview. “Maybe we’re being penny wise and pound foolish.”
But Greenwald then pointed to the five education officials testifying yesterday before the Assembly committee, of which he is also a member.
“Certainly, there are enough people at the table where someone should have caught this,” he said.
Questions over the functions and capacity of the education department are nothing new in Trenton.
A 2007 audit by KPMG was the result of challenges to whether the department was up to the task in managing billions in state aid to districts and overseeing how programs were implemented, including new rules on spending and taxation similar to those now in place under Gov. Chris Christie.
The report detailed a host of problems, including lack of staff, communication and training. On whether the department was capable of ensuring compliance with the new rules, KPMG was straightforward:
“DOE’s compliance monitoring activities are impacted by a lack of people, processes, and technology. Further, it appears coordination across units performing compliance and monitoring activities is lacking.”
Lucille Davy, then the commissioner under former Gov. Jon Corzine, announced with the release of the audit that changes were already under way. But more than two years later, the transition team for Gov. Christie was repeating the refrain, as the department grew even more decimated in Corzine’s final years.
“The structure of the Department is complex, duplicative, and inefficient and not organized to support what should be its primary role, to assist the districts in providing the highest possible educational opportunities to the children of New Jersey,” the transition report read.
Bret Schundler, Christie’s appointment to be commissioner, promised to change all that and released a new organizational chart in June that laid out positions and divisions that would meet his management aims.
Of course, Schundler did not get a chance to fulfill the promise, as Christie fired him two weeks ago over the Race to the Top error and how it was explained. But even so, many of those positions had remained unfilled and functions incomplete.
Whether or not this led to the error on the application is up for debate. One could argue that it is testament to the department that it came so close in spite of its shortcomings.
“We had to move fairly fast. There wasn’t a lot of time to review and revise the application,” said assistant commissioner Willa Spicer, one of the leads on the application.
She described how virtually every department head was involved in a process resulting in eight versions of the application. At least four consultants from Wireless Generation Inc. played a central role, working from offices in the department and their room at the Trenton Marriott. The firm was paid close to $190,000 on the application.
“I think just about everyone in management read their sections, worked with the consultant, reviewed, went back and forth,” Spicer said.
She said the last word – and final edit -- rested with Schundler: “The commissioner made the final decision on all those things, he read the whole thing, he worked night and day.”
But Democratic legislators also homed in on the greater shortcomings, while even Republicans cited issues that may have played a larger part in the state not receiving enough points.
The major one was the state’s student data collection and analysis, a major part of the application process but one in which New Jersey received its lowest score. Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Hunterdon) questioned why after six years that the system known as NJ SMART remains incomplete.
Acting commissioner Rochelle Hendricks and others acknowledged the slow progress, mostly citing inconsistent funding but also different priorities.
“There have been a lot of fits and starts in terms of the priority to implementing NJ SMART,” Hendricks said. “We know there has been very slow progress to what is very, very critical.”